Familiarity and contempt

July 22nd, 2016 Sections: Tourism

A conversation with a colleague, the other day, brought to mind an old English idiom, proverb, adage: that Familiarity breeds contempt:

… if you know someone very well, or experience something a lot, then you stop respecting them …


Mountain Peaks

Mountain Peaks


He was commenting on some guests that had been staying with us in the hotel and had been singing the praises of the Kyrgyz mountains … and he asked me what is was about the mountains that proved to be so appealing for foreigners … he, himself, could see it.

“Yes,” he said, “the mountains are beautiful … but … “

I tried to explain that he grew up with the mountains … they were part of his background … they were always there and had become subsumed into his character and personality.  He had grown used to them and immune from their charm and attractions.

It wasn’t exactly a case of ‘familiarity breeding contempt’ … but rather of familarity instilling an attitude of taking something for granted.


It is, perhaps, easy to understand why some people are attracted to the mountains … the English, Dutch and Belgians, for example, come from countries which are basically flat … where there aren’t any such geographical features.

I remember being really offended when a friend of mine, (from New Zealand), once complained that the British landscape was flat and boring …

It really wasn’t the thing to say to someone from Malvern … famous for it’s hills which rise from the flat Severn Plain …

“How can you say that?” I asked … “you’ve been to the Lake District, the Welsh Mountains and the Scotish Highlands …”

“Yes,” he said, “but they are nothing compared to the Southern Alps …”, (the range of mountains that form the backbone of the South Island of New Zealand).

At the time, I put the comment down to national pride … but, now, I think I understand better.

A bit more surprising, perhaps, is the close affinity with the mountains felt by Swiss, and the Austrians, the French and the Italians … countries with mountains of their own … dramatic mountain ranges.

One Swiss tourist explained it to me thus …

“Yes, we have mountains … but here in Kyrgyzstan there are so many different types of mountains … they are not all like the Alps.”

… he also said that it was possible to “get away from it all”, from ‘civilization’ and venture into the wilderness.

To paraphrase an earlier slogan for Kyrgyzstan – it was all new, it was all different.

Back in Malvern, where I grew up, we have a range of hills … striking and beautiful in their own way … but nothing like the Tien Shan or Pamirs … they are not so tall … not so dramatic.  They are there, however, all the time … in the background.  They exert and influence, if only in the fact that almost any journey from A to B involves going up hill and down dale – or following a winding path as it snakes around following a contour line.

The interesting thing, however, is that … unless someone actually lived on the slopes it was very rare that they ventured into the hills … they were simply there and taken for granted.


Familiarity breeds contempt is actually a very old saying … the first known occurence is in a Second Century treatise, (On the God of Socrates – in Latin), on the existence of daemons –  intermediaries between gods and humans – by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis:

parit enim conversatio contemptum, raritas conciliat admirationem
familiarity breeds contempt, rarity brings admiration

For the record: Apuleius was born in what is now Algeria, but was well travelled for his time, having studied Platonism in Athens, and travelling to Italy, Asia Minor, and Egypt.  His most famous work is a bawdy picaresque novel, the Metamorphoses, but is also known as The Golden Ass, which tells the ludicrous adventures of Lucius, who experiments with magic and is accidentally turned into a donkey.

Interestingly, it is the only Latin novel that has survived in its entirety.

It’s available for download in a variety of formats, for example, from feedbooks.

It is also, sometimes credited to Geoffrey Chaucer …  who seems to give us the first recorded use of the expression in English; in Tale of Melibee – one of the Canterbury Tales.



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